Al-Qaeda Grows in Gaza

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When Egypt recently became the first Arab country to publicly confirm al Qaeda’s presence in the Gaza Strip, it severely undermined years of denial by the terrorist organization Hamas. In fact, the news has helped to underscore the growing role al Qaeda is now playing in Gaza.

The confirmation of al Qaeda’s existence in Gaza came when the Egyptian government announced that it had “conclusive evidence” the Gaza-based Army of Islam, an al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, was behind the January 1, 2011, suicide car bombing in Alexandria, Egypt.

Perhaps more significantly, the attack—which killed 24 Coptic Christians, wounded over 100 and set off days of rioting in Egypt–marked the first time al Qaeda-linked forces in Gaza had turned their focus away from attacks on Israel and targeted an Arab country.

While the Army of Islam denied any involvement in the bombing, a spokesman for the terrorist organization made clear the group’s support for those that carried out the assault, saying, “The Army of Islam has no connection to the church attack in Egypt, though we praise those who did it.”

However, in a televised address, Egyptian Interior Minister, Habib al-Adly, voiced a far different opinion: “If elements of the Palestinian Army of Islam, linked to al Qaeda, thought they had hidden behind [Egyptian] recruits, we have decisive proof of their heinous involvement in planning and carrying out such a villainous terrorist attack.”

Al-Adly’s announcement came on the heels of the arrest by Egyptian security forces of 19 suspected al Qaeda members accused of trying to create terror cells in Gaza. According to al-Adly, these and other militants had been entering into Gaza through tunnels located near the city of Rafiah.

Of course, the news of al Qaeda operating freely in the Gaza Strip comes as little surprise to either Israelis or to the Fatah-led Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. As far back as 2005, when Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza, numerous reports surfaced documenting Hamas’s efforts–with active support from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah–to create a safe haven for al Qaeda.

In 2008, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said, “I can say without doubt that al-Qaida is present in the Palestinian territories and that this presence, especially in Gaza, is facilitated by Hamas.”

In 2009, the Israel Security Agency reported a growing spread of global jihad organizations in Gaza. In addition to the Army of Islam, these groups, known as Jihadi Salafis, included the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades; the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad; the Popular Resistance Committees; the Army of the Umma; and Fatah al-Islam.

In early January 2011, Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security forces, claimed Jihadi Salifis were behind the recent violence in Gaza: “There are about 500 militant activists and some are in touch with al-Qaida’s regional command.”   To bolster that fact, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) recently killed two terrorists along the Gaza-Israeli border, both of whom were identified as members of al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Still, Hamas–while acknowledging the presence in Gaza of small groups of radical zealots– has dismissed the notion that they are in any way linked to al Qaeda. In December 2010, Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had emphatically stated: “There is no such thing as al Qaeda in Gaza. The Palestinian resistance does not work outside the borders of Palestine.”

In response to the Egyptian report, Hamas released a statement, which read in part: “Hamas is leading the resistance against the Zionist occupation in Palestine and will never allow it [the resistance] to move outside Palestine.” Instead, Hamas laid the blame of the New Year’s Day attack squarely at the feet of Israel, arguing it was an Israeli ploy designed to falsely accuse Hamas of creating a safe haven for al Qaeda.

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    Hamas laid the blame of the New Year’s Day attack squarely at the feet of Israel, arguing it was an Israeli ploy designed to falsely accuse Hamas of creating a safe haven for al Qaeda.